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  • City of Immigrants

    This video is in honor of Father’s Day, appropriate given that Jill and I are seeing Steve Earle tonight with Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakum.

    Life is good for us, not for the kids at Casa Padre, and that’s a shame/stain on our society.

  • Father & Son: A Life-Affirming Evening

    Last night, I was fortunate to see Ry and Joaquim Cooder in concert at The Birchmere in Alexandria. The elder Cooder has long been one of my favorite musicians, an incredible guitar-singer-songwriter who has worked with everyone in the music industry in a career that dates back to the late 1960s. Now 71, he is on his first tour in a decade behind “The Prodigal Son,” a tour-de-force return to his folk/blues/jazz roots that mixes original songs with reimagined gospel songs.

    On the new album, Cooder, a self-described curmudgeon whose music has veered toward the stridently political over the past decade, focuses on empathy, understanding, and tolerance. It’s a welcome and beautiful piece of music, merging his best work with the sonic textures laid down by Joaquim.

    Cooder’s son, who has played in his father’s band since he was a teenager, co-produced the album and played drums. He also opened the show with his own set, playing the ethereal and textured songs from his EP “Fucsia Machu Picchu” on an electric mbira (thumb piano).  The Hamiltones, a Charlotte-based trio, provided beautiful backing vocals amid the swirls of sound that resonated throughout the venue. They are a group to watch.

    All in all, it was a great night — life affirming in all the right ways. Get “The Prodigal Son.” Trust me.

    (Because of photo restrictions placed by the venue, these pics are of Joaquim’s opening act, along with a couple of the Hamiltones. A special thanks to Mark Englund for the ticket.)

  • Concerts and iPhones: Willie Nelson

    There's only so much you can do when forced to rely on an iPhone at a concert. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can get an interesting image. Here are two of Willie Nelson & The Family performing at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., last night.

  • A Couple of Music Moments

    Anyone who knows me — well or not — knows I'm a huge music fan. I love nothing more than discovering new artists, revisiting established ones, and learning what makes writers and creators of some of my favorite sounds tick. Here are two videos worth your time, with memories of my own attached.

    This is one of my all-time favorite songs, part of a live album that came out a couple of months before my dad died. "For Jack Tymon" by Scott Miller is a song that tells the story of my love for Nick, Kate, Ben, and Emma in a mere 2:59. Definitely worth a listen.

    Somewhere around the one hour, 13-minute mark in this recording, Paul Westerberg makes my all-time favorite live show a classic. At the end of "Love You in the Fall," a song from the animated movie Open Season, Tommy Stinson talks about the project and tries to give a nonessential piece of The Replacements canon a boost.

    At which point Westerberg says, "This one's better," and launches into "Can't Hardly Wait." 15,000 fans roared and sang along. It was a moment I will never forget.

    (BTW: The photo on this video is one I took, which makes it even better.)

  • Another Isbell-Shires Sighting

    For the third time in four months, Jill and I saw Jason Isbell perform with his wife, Amanda Shires. The first was at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville to kick off Isbell’s three-week artist in residence program. The second was last month in February with Nick, Conner, and Isbell’s full band, the 400 Unit.

    Last night, however, was special. The performance was called “Masters of American Music,” a benefit for the National Council for the Traditional Arts. Held at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C., the event was in a room that seated less than 300 people.

    In addition to Isbell, we also had the chance to see Jerry Douglas share the stage with younger musicians Jan Knutson and brother-sister duo Giri and Uma Peters, and special guests Steve Abshire and Phil Wiggins.

    It was a great night at the end of a long week in which I shot two conferences, a show, an event on Capitol Hill and wrote a story. Busy, busy, busy.

    But worth it.

  • Steve Earle: 2017

    Steve Earle is one of three performers — Dave Alvin and John Hiatt are the others — I’ve seen live more than a dozen times in various configurations over the past 30 years. All three rarely disappoint because they are outstanding musicians and storytellers.

    Last night’s show, featuring Earle and his band The Dukes at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., was no exception. It was, as usual, a goulash of various genres that ranged from pedal steel country to hard rock, all serving to promote Earle’s latest album, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” which was released last month. It also was the first time Earle, who is outspoken in his political views, has performed with his band in the D.C. area since the 2016 presidential election.

    Politics were part of the equation — how could they not be? — but Earle’s canvas was broad, nostalgic and even melancholy at times. He spoke of being an a romantic in the widest possible sense, noting that he hasn’t done as well in the personal department (seven marriages, including a recent divorce from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer). Now 62, he talked being an optimist, largely because of his 7-year-old son with Moorer, who has autism.

    Earle’s mentors and mortality also were recurring themes. “Outlaw” is inspired by Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and its closing number, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” is dedicated to Guy Clark, who died last year. He spoke of performing at Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic for the first time this year, having attended the first one as an 18-year-old and others since.

    After more than two hours, Earle’s encore closed with “This Land is Your Land,” and “Christmas in Washington,” which namechecks Woody Guthrie and serves as a call for unity in a fractured world. It was a fitting end to a lovely night.

    End notes:

    • The talent of the musicians in Earle’s band is outstanding, although there were some sound issues last night. Earle has worked with bass player Kelly Looney since 1988 and with guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore since 2010. Two new members, drummer Brad Pemberton and pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson, also were terrific.

    • Masterson and Whitmore, who are married and perform separately as “The Mastersons,” again are the openers for the tour. They showcased songs from their third album, the recently released (and excellent) “Transient Lullaby.” Having seen them now four times, the first time at a Joe’s Pub release party for Moorer’s 2010 album “Crows,” I’m a true fan.

    • Both Earle and Whitmore astound me with their versatility. Earle played eight different instruments and Whitmore four last night.

    • I love The Birchmere, my go-to club for music since we moved here in 2001. It’s nice to be in a venue where folks sit and listen to the music, and it’s great to be able to take photos without issues with something other than a phone. The $8 charge for a beer came as a shock though.

    • I got lucky. Not sure whether I’d be able to go to the show until the last minute, I went to the box office and was told it was sold out. Fortunately, a man was sitting in the lobby trying to sell an extra ticket, which I got at face value. Then, getting into the general admission area late (some folks had been there since noon), I managed to score a seat with members of The U-Liners, a DC-area Americana and roots-rock band with many shared musical interests. They were great; I hope to see their next show in DC in August. Check them out at www.uliners.com.

    • Interesting trivia only to me: Earle and I share the same birthday — January 17 — 10 years apart.

    • Additional musicians I would like to add to my 10-plus list: Moorer, who will be at The Birchmere next month with her sister, Shelby Lynne, behind a new album; Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, who I saw for the second time last month at Merriweather Post Pavilion; and Chris Stapleton, who I’m seeing at Jiffy Lube Pavilion this weekend. Good summer for shows. 

  • 'March for Science'

    Soggy conditions did not dampen the enthusiasm of thousands of supporters who came to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to advocate for environmental causes and science research on Earth Day.

    The set up for the March for Science was similar to the Women’s March on Washington, held just three months and one day earlier. I was hired by the Entomological Society of America, one of numerous science organizations that took part in the event, to shoot members getting ready for and participating in the rally.

    Throughout the rally, a broad range of speakers were supported by entertainment and a series of short films and clips. Questlove, whose Grammy Award-winning group The Roots serves as the in-house band for The Tonight Show, was one of the co-hosts. Jon Batiste, music director and bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, led the house band.

    The steady drizzle turned into a downpour by late morning, and I left before seeing Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) speak or Thomas Dolby perform. These photos, however, capture some of the spirit of the day, which was mirrored in more than 600 cities on more than six continents.

    To see more photos from the March, go to my Facebook page here.

  • Places: Gruene Hall

    For some time, I’ve had this idea to do short visual stories on the places I visit across the U.S. I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit over the past few years, and find that I’m drawn to places that are a little off the beaten path. In most cases, unless you’re a local, you pass by them on the road without a glance.

    This new series of stories starts with a visit last fall to Texas’ Gruene Hall, where I saw Charlie Robison play the second night of his annual weekend Labor Day bash. It had been some time since I had been to Gruene Hall, located near New Braunfels in the Hill Country, and I wanted to showcase this unique Central Texas institution.

    Built in 1878, the 8,000-square-foot dance hall was designed to give tenant farmers a way to socialize on the weekends. George Strait got his start there, playing once a month while beginning his career, and the hall has hosted a who’s who of Texas artists, including Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Robison is a regular, as is his brother, Bruce, and they occasionally play as a trio with Jack Ingram.

    Gruene Hall bills itself as the oldest dance hall still operating in Texas, a claim disputed by some, and it’s charm comes from how little about it has changed. It has a high-pitched tent roof with a bar in front and a small lighted stage in the back. Signs from the 1930s and ‘40s still surround the stage and hang in the hall, which has side flaps that are used for open air dancing.

    This photos in this album were taken in real-time, so you can see how the evening started slowly and progressively got more full once Robison took the stage. If you ever get the chance to go to Gruene Hall, do so. It’s a piece of history you won’t soon forget.

  • Hooray for 'Humble & Kind'

    I've written about my love for Lori McKenna's music, most recently about her concert here and specifically about this song. So imagine my surprise when, in the middle of game 7 of the World Series, I logged on and discovered McKenna won the CMA Song of the Year for "Humble & Kind."

    In a just world, this would be the news of the day. Either way, I'm happy to share it again. #CMA50

    ••••••

    P.S. Congrats to the Cubs, too! Great to see their comeback and for the curse to finally be broken.

  • Lori McKenna: Humble & Kind

    Note: This review also was cross-posted to my No Depression page. To see more photos, go to my Facebook album or to my “Performances” page.

    Lori McKenna started her “Wreck You” tour to promote her new CD a week before it was released, and was surprised to learn she could sell copies of “The Bird & The Rifle” before it becomes available to the general public.

    “I didn’t know you could do that,” she said during her show at Jammin’ Java just outside Washington, D.C.

    Such is the state of the music business, where release dates have been moved from Tuesdays to Fridays and smaller labels (such as McKenna’s) operate much differently than the now shrunken behemoths. Today, however, you and anyone else with an iTunes account can purchase “The Bird & The Rifle,” the latest in a series of gems from this mother of five who lives with her husband of 28 years outside Boston.

    In a just world, McKenna’s music would get the same level of promotion — and subsequent sales — as the increasing number of artists who cover her richly detailed songs. One of those songs, “Humble and Kind,” topped the charts when Tim McGraw — whose wife, Faith Hill, helped McKenna get her big break as a songwriter in 2005 — released it last year.

    McGraw’s mainstream sincerity (and video with connections to Oprah Winfrey) made the song a hit, but McKenna reclaims it on her new album. At the Jammin’ Java concert, she talked about writing the song at her dining room table between dropping off and picking up her kids from school. When you hear it on the CD, you can almost see her writing in longhand.

    Hold the door say please say thank you
    Don't steal, don't cheat, and don't lie
    I know you got mountains to climb but
    Always stay humble and kind
    When the dreams you're dreamin' come to you
    When the work you put in is realized
    Let yourself feel the pride but
    Always stay humble and kind

    Don’t expect a free ride from no one
    Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why
    Bitterness keeps you from flyin’
    Always stay humble and kind

    As a longtime fan — I have all 10 of McKenna’s albums — I’ve always appreciated her eye for life’s little details and ability to capture with grace and empathy the struggles of people just trying to get by. In concert, she almost apologizes for writing so many sad songs — the first single on the new CD is titled “Wreck You” — and while it’s true that none of her work qualifies as summer beach music, what she manages to capture is much more real instead.

    “The Bird & The Rifle,” however, has a new wrinkle: Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb, who has worked wonders for Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Cobb and a host of Nashville’s top musicians compliment McKenna’s words in a way I haven’t heard before. It is, without question, the best sounding record she has made.

    So, if you can, try to catch McKenna live sometime this summer. And stick around for the encore, where she performs “Girl Crush,” a song co-written with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and recorded by Little Big Town. That one won McKenna a Grammy, and long overdue recognition that her words speak volumes.

  • Cabaret of Talent

    The cast of Metropolitan Youth Theatre's upcoming production of "Spring Awakening" performed in a fundraising cabaret and pot luck dinner Saturday in Alexandria. The cast showcased several group numbers from the Tony Award-winning show and several performed solo pop numbers.

    The event, held at Metropolitan School of the Arts' studio in Alexandria, was a showcase for an incredibly talented ensemble of high school and college students ranging in age from 15 to 20.

    "Spring Awakening" is the fourth MYT production since the student-run company was founded in 2014. Performances will be July 29-31 at 1st Stage Tysons in McLean, Va. (Note: The show has mature language and themes that are not suited for young audiences.)

    Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $20 and available at www.metroyoutharts.com.

    Get your tickets. You won't regret it. For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • 'Humble & Kind'

    This song is best known because of Tim McGraw's version, but it was written by one of my favorite musicians — Lori McKenna (check out her stuff now!) — and will be on her new album that comes out in a couple of weeks.

    If you have 4 minutes and 18 seconds, please give this a listen. It's something Jill and I have tried to teach our kids, and given all of the unrest in our country and in the world right now, it's a lesson well worth sharing to any and all.

  • RIP, Scotty Moore

    "Elvis Presley wouldn't have been Elvis Presley without Scotty Moore."

    Of all the musicians who've died this year, this may be the toughest one yet. Scotty Moore, who played lead guitar on all of Presley’s biggest hits of the 1950s and early 1960s, died yesterday In Nashville at age 84.

    Moore and bassist Bill Black were part of Presley’s original band that started on Sun Records and moved over to RCA in 1956 after cutting a string of singles that are now considered the foundation of rock and roll. Even though the two left in a money dispute in 1958, Moore returned after Presley’s Army stint ended in 1960 and continued to play for him all the way through to Elvis’ comeback special in 1968.

    The following year, Presley (without Moore) recorded “From Elvis in Memphis” and started touring again regularly for the first time in almost a decade. Ironically, his “From Elvis in Memphis” producer, Chips Moman, also died earlier this year.

    The list of musicians that Moore influenced and the genre he helped develop is staggering. Among the guitarists who cite him as a direct influence: Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and the White Stripes’ Jack White.

    Take a moment and watch Presley perform “Trying to Get to You” with Moore in this clip from the 68 Comeback Special. Presley started off acoustic, then traded guitars with Moore and lit the place on fire.